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Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution Paperback – October 14, 2008

ISBN-13: 978-0809016433 ISBN-10: 0809016435 Edition: 1st

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Hill and Wang; 1st edition (October 14, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0809016435
  • ISBN-13: 978-0809016433
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.5 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #82,000 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Is the Constitution a democratic document? Yes, says University of Richmond historian Holton (Forced Founders), but not because the men who wrote it were especially democratically inclined. The framers, Holton says, distrusted the middling farmers who made up much of America's voting population, and believed governance should be left in large part to the elites. But the framers also knew that if the document they drafted did not address ordinary citizens' concerns, the states would not ratify it. Thus, the framers created a more radical document—an underdogs' Constitution, Holton calls it—than they otherwise would have done. Holton's book, which may be the most suggestive study of the politics of the Constitution and the early republic since Drew McCoy's 1980 The Elusive Republic, is full of surprising insights; for example, his discussion of newspaper writers' defense of a woman's right to purchase the occasional luxury item flies in the face of much scholarship on virtue, gender and fashion in postrevolutionary America. Holton concludes with an inspiring rallying cry for democracy, saying that Americans today seem to have abandoned ordinary late-18th-century citizens' intens[e]... democratic aspiration, resigned, he says, to the power of global corporations and of wealth in American politics. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

The motivation of the framers of our constitution is a constant and often hotly debated topic among historians. At one extreme are those who see the framers as brilliant, democratic politicians who did a masterful job of juggling competing interests while remaining true to the ideal of personal liberty. At the other extreme are the economic determinists who view the founders as members of the privileged classes, insistent upon protecting their interests from the encroachments of the masses. Holton certainly would be most comfortable in the latter camp, but his arguments here are free of dogmatism, and he offers some interesting twists on old assertions. He maintains that the delegates to the convention were attempting to limit the democratic tendencies of the individual state legislatures by curbing their powers to issue paper money and offer relief to debtors. Faced with vehement popular opposition to ratification, the Bill of Rights, Holton claims, was promised only to tip the balance in favor of ratification. Although he makes a credible case that some delegates feared the dangers of democracy, he glosses over the commitment many showed to protecting personal freedom as their top priority. Freeman, Jay --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

More About the Author

Woody Holton (Ph.D., Duke University) is an McCausland Professor of History at the University of South Carolina, where he teaches classes on African Americans, Native America, early American women, the origins of the Constitution, Abigail Adams, and the era of the American Revolution. He is especially interested in studying the impact of ordinary citizens on grand political events. He is the author of Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia (1999), which won the Organization of American Historians Merle Curti Social History Award; Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution (2007), which was a finalist for the National Book Award; and Abigail Adams, which won the Bancroft Prize.

Customer Reviews

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This book, of course, is very much a work of its time and place.
Roger D. Launius
So... the greatest pertinence of Holton's analysis should be the light it sheds on the hot-button question of "original intent" that roils politics in the USA today.
Giordano Bruno
I highly recommend this book along with more traditional texts regarding the creation of the US constitution.
CJ

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

33 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Jonathon R. Howard on November 21, 2007
Format: Hardcover
A fascinating and revealing look at the creation of the United States constitution. Holton explores how much of the important events and causes of the convention that created our constitution are ignored in historical accounts. This book is an attempt to rectify that in some measure. Holton describes in detail what he believes the primary reason behind the framer's intent, the economic failure of the Confederation and the democracy of the States. The constitution was written to make the country less democratic and remove from the people the ability to get out of debt (through the courts or printing money) In doing so it created a elitist government that had to appear non-elitist. Holton says that in the end, the underdogs, the farmers, won because our nation isn't as elitist as it could have been. I tend to disagree with his conclusions... Still an excellent read that showed me a part of history I was unaware of.

A great read for the liberty minded!
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Format: Hardcover
The nature of the Constitution, as well as the intention of its framers, has long been debated by historians. "Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution" offers an interesting and instructive new perspective on this debate by suggesting that what emerged from the Constitutional convention and its ratification was especially democratic not so much because of the majority of the efforts of the framers themselves--although they did believe in basic democratic principles--but because of opponents to the Constitution who worked hard for concessions and protections that have been critical to the effective functioning of the nation since that time.

In essence, author Woody Holton, professor of history at the University of Richmond, asserts that critical cadre of such advocates was a part of the convention in Philadelphia drafting the Constitution but even more emerged in the various states during the ratification debates. The author makes a compelling case for the success of these individuals in juggling a variety of competing interests while constructing a bulwark that would preserve personal liberty. It was these "unruly Americans," in the author's phraseology, which ensured individual rights. He analyzes and celebrates the actions of these people to rise up and take action when those in powerful positions would seek to curtail liberty.

This book, of course, is very much a work of its time and place. The author's juxtaposition of political perspectives and their conflict over a cornerstone of democratic principles--individual rights and liberty--offers an analogy for our own day and the efforts to curtail civil liberties in the aftermath of 9/11.
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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Herbert L Calhoun on May 31, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This history, told mostly from the vantage point of the average colonial American, rather than from the traditional vantage point of the landed gentry, has a lot to offer in untwisting the mythology of how our Constitution came about.

It is basically a story about the chaos that ensued when all the contending forces -- from the grassroots upwards are thrown into the mix; and all side's views and interests are taken into account. What ensued in 1787 was not a pretty picture. That the author was able to capture this unruliness is a tribute to his skill, and in the end is a much fuller, much more honest and thus a more believable history than the sugarcoated version we have come to accept and revere as the true national story.

Woody Holton is not the first, the only, nor will he be the last historian to note that our founding fathers were an aristocratic and very much anti-democratic bunch, who were as careful and skillful at protecting their own economic interests as they were concerned about shaping a "people's democracy" through the details of the Constitution. And while this book does not go so far as to suggest that the overlapping interests of the landed gentry amounted to a silent reactionary conspiracy, as Charles Beard does in his "An Economic Interpretation of the U.S. Constitution," or as Howard Zinn leaves hanging in the air in his "A People's History of the United States," it does leave plenty of room for the careful reader to draw his own speculative conclusions.

The crux of the matter (and of the book) is that due to the rebellious attitudes and actions of the average colonial citizen, the framers (representing the interests mostly of the landed gentry) were worried about the post-revolutionary slide into "a real people's democracy.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on April 15, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Imagine this conundrum; governments, both state and national, pay their debts and bills with bonds, scrip, and promissory notes instead of hard currency or gold and silver coin. And then these same governments turn around and demand tax payments to themselves in hard currency or gold ONLY.(And very HIGH tax payments to boot!)

As one might intuit, this scenario is a prescription for financial distress if not out right rebellion and this is precisely what occurred in the thirteen states during the period when the Articles of Confederation were in effect. Mobs of ex-soldiers and foreclosed upon taxpayers laid siege to state legislatures demanding relief [p.148], closed courts to prevent foreclosures, and otherwise engaged in massive grass root resistance to tax collection efforts [p.153]. The worst of it being the Shay's Rebellion in western Massachusetts in 1786 [p.11].

Holton's thesis is that the economic elites of the new American state were terrified by all this and set out to take the people's hands off the levers of power to the greatest extent possible. It sure didn't hurt that many, many of the constitution's proponents (and their families and friends) were bondholders, creditors, and land speculators either, notes Holton, who follows in the "Cui Bono" school of economic history and is solidly in the tradition of An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of The United States by Charles A. Beard (1913) and People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present (P.S.) by Howard Zinn (1980) [p.157].
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